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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Sunday, February 05, 2006

on dissing other people's prophets

It used to be that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel; now religion has taken its place.

This was my thought as the news stories first unfolded about the reaction of "Muslims" to the publication of cartoons in Denmark and other countries. Not many news stories provoke an emotional reaction in me; this was one. For as an artist and, more than that, as a person I have strong feelings about freedom of expression. I believe we (that is, free societies) should think very, very hard before making it any kind of crime, or sanctioning people in any way, for the way they have arranged ink on paper.

I was disappointed too at how apologetic everyone was, from the Danish government to many other Western representatives. Perhaps it was inevitable that the editor of the French newspaper that reran the cartoons should be sacked by his Egyptian-French boss, but I felt that that editor's heart was in the right place.

Of course I feel that people should be free too to protest, peacefully, over their grievances. But the appearance of masked thugs setting fire to buildings and threatening people with death and beheading and so on--well, what has this to do with offended religious values? All I could think was, "The more violence in the name of 'Islam' there is, the more telling the cartoon was."

Mohammed was a historical figure who, although revered by Muslims, is not owned by them. His thoughts, words, and deeds have had tremendous consequences for the world--all parts of it, including the non-Islamic parts--and not merely religious but political as well. If people burn down Western embassies in his name, then he has certainly become fair game for Western comment, whether reverent, satirical, or otherwise.

For me, one of the most disturbing images was from a protest march in London. The march appeared to be orderly and peaceful, but one of the marchers carried a placard that read, "To hell with free speech!" I thought, London is the wrong place for you, friend. There are a lot of regimes out there who share that sentiment; that's where you need to be.

The whole affair triggered a memory from my recent readings. This is from Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty by Roy F. Baumeister:

When people believe that their rights and their group pride have been injured by someone from another group, they are all too often ready to respond in a violent fashion that goes beyond any practical or instrumental use. Groups reflect a built-in predisposition toward a certain pattern of antagonism.

That, of course, is what we have here. The terms "cartoon" and "Muslim" become mere tokens in a conflict between groups. It is a manifestation of identity politics. "Muslims" can feel a sense of solidarity with those who share that identity and feel outrage against the Others: those who slander the Prophet.

For my part, I'm willing to identify with those who support free speech and freedom of the press.

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